I remember getting the autograph of a Major League Baseball star when I was a boy. I remember my admiration for this player (whose identity is best not revealed) and how I treasured his signature. Then I learned what a nasty person he was. He had a reputation for lying, cheating, and mistreating others. My admiration turned to contempt.
Some respond the same way to Jesus when they read the New Testament Gospels and discover another side to him. The “gentle Jesus meek and mild” turns out to be a “harsh Jesus mean and wild.”
Or so they assume.
Story of Murder
One of the hard sayings of Jesus that turns people’s admiration to contempt emerges at the end of his parable of the vineyard owner and the wicked tenants (Luke 20:9–19). A vineyard owner sends a servant at harvest time to the tenants who leased his vineyard. This owner wants his share of the fruit.
However, the tenants beat the servant and send him away with nothing. This happens two more times. Finally, the vineyard owner sends his beloved son, thinking the tenants might respect him. Shockingly, though, the tenants murder the son.
At the end of the parable, Jesus asks what the vineyard owner will do to the tenants. He affirms the vineyard owner will kill the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
The point of the parable is clear—especially since the religious leaders knew Jesus told the parable about them. The vineyard owner represents God. The servants are the Old Testament prophets whom God repeatedly sent to Israel. The beloved son is Jesus himself.
After his listeners express shock, Jesus challenges them with a quote from Psalm 118:32: “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Crushed by Jesus?
Jesus will be rejected by the religious leaders—and even suffer death (Luke 19:47). Yet he will become the foundation stone for a renewed temple. At this point, he utters words about himself that turned some people’s admiration into contempt: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed” (Luke 20:18).
Shocking words. Jesus, the foundation stone, will fall on some and shatter them. He will grind them to powder. This speaks to a seemingly dark side of Jesus’s character—his wrath. What are we to make of an angry Jesus who crushes people? Where is his love? How can Jesus tell his followers to love their enemies (Luke 6:35) if he does not love his?
What Michael Reeves observes about the triune God obviously relates to Jesus:
[If he] is just the biggest boy in the school who must have his every way or else lose it in fits of carpet-biting rage, then his anger is repellent. All his other good qualities would be as nothing when we saw those red eyes.
Making Sense of It All
Here are five observations to help us make sense of our Lord’s shocking words.
1. Jesus speaks about the enemies of God.
Jesus will not crush random people—those at the wrong place at the wrong time. No, he will destroy those who set themselves up against God and his people. This theme stretches back to the beginning of Luke. Mary’s song rejoices in God her Savior, who will scatter the proud and bring down prideful rulers (Luke 1:51–52).
Likewise, Zechariah’s song connects God raising up a king in the line of David with rescuing God’s people from their enemies (Luke 2:69, 71, 74). Jesus becomes the instrument of this crushing judgment.
2. It’s no contradiction for Jesus to express both love and wrath.
This is hard to grasp, because we usually think a wrathful person is not a loving person. Yet, as Michael Reeves says, “God is angry at evil because he loves. . . . [I]t is not that God is naturally angry, but that evil provokes him: in his pure love, God cannot tolerate evil.”
Isaiah 28:21 makes clear that wrath is unnatural to God when it speaks of his judgment and wrath as his “strange work” and his “alien task.” Don Carson puts it like this: “Where there is no sin, there is no wrath—but there will always be love in God.”
3. Jesus loved his enemies by dying for them.
In Luke 20, he speaks about his death when he refers to the killing of the vineyard owner’s son and to “the stone the builders rejected.”
Jesus’s death turns out to be an expression of love because, according to Romans 3:25–26, it satisfies God’s righteous anger against sin (an idea inherent in the expression “sacrifice of atonement”) and thereby allows him to declare guilty sinners just without violating his justice.
4. God is patient in pouring out his crushing judgment through Jesus.
This patience actually creates another problem: God’s delay of his final judgment allows evil to continue. Creation groans. Victims suffer. Evil regimes murder.
Christ the cornerstone is not crushing anyone at present. Yet we know God is not slow in keeping his promise to exclude evil so love can reign. “Instead,” Peter affirms, “he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
5. Jesus’s future crushing of evildoers frees us from taking revenge now.
Romans 12:19 says: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” I can therefore love my enemies as Jesus commanded, reflecting God’s kindness to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:35).
I express this love in the confidence that wrong done against me will be avenged—either by Jesus pouring out his wrath on evildoers (as the crushing cornerstone) or by absorbing God’s wrath on the cross.
Salvation in No One Else
In Acts, the sequel to his Gospel, Luke records a striking statement. The religious leaders in Jerusalem asked Peter by what power he and John were able to heal a lame beggar. Peter declares, “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed” (Acts 4:10).
Right after this statement, he quotes Psalm 118:22—just as Jesus did in Luke 20:17: “Jesus is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the chief cornerstone” (Acts 4:11). But then, instead of offering a word of judgment, Peter proclaims, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Jesus is the cornerstone. What you experience from him depends on your response. He will crush the proud who resist and oppose him. He will save those who call on his name in faith. Both responses are entirely consistent. Both flow from God’s astounding love.